By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — A year ago this month, two members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate what they feared were long-term cost overruns in a new combat ship program. So far, there have been no answers.
In a July 27, 2011, letter to the GAO, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., joined by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., cited concerns about the program’s historic cost overruns and schedule delays, and more recent corrosion and structural issues with the Littoral Combat Ships.
Lockheed Martin and Austal Inc., the two contractors building two different versions of the ship, say they’re moving forward.
“We intend to remain on schedule and on cost, while we continue incorporating lessons learned and drive down costs,” Joe North, vice president of Littoral Ship Systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems & Sensors business, told the defense site, Techreleased.com.
More than 700 companies in 43 states are performing portions of work on Lockheed Martin’s LCS program. Marinette Marine Corp., a Fincantieri company, is building the ships in Marinette, Wis., with naval architect Gibbs & Cox of Arlington, Va., providing engineering support.
Austal, headquartered in Australia, has its main U.S. shipbuilding base in Mobile, Ala.
Both Lockheed Martin and Austal are banking on foreign sales to meet U.S. cost targets of roughly $500 million per vessel. But they worry that the Navy’s “neutral” position in the competition could hurt those sales prospects.
Wittman said there are bigger problems, including reports of cracked hulls and the prospect of ballooning “life-cycle” costs over the long term.
“We want to make sure the Navy is forthright in answering these questions and that sailors’ concerns are being heard,” the congressman said in explaining his letter to the GAO.
In seeking an independent review, Hunter and Wittman asked GAO:
- What the Navy is doing to overcome technical design flaws in the first two ships.
- What the Navy is doing to make sure follow-on ships are delivered with cost and time estimates.
- What actions the Navy has taken to make certain that mission packages have the capabilities they were intended to have.
- To provide performance and operational maintenance date on the propulsion systems for both LCS variants.
GAO officials did not respond to Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau’s request for comment, and Wittman said he has heard nothing from the agency.
In March, the Navy has issued Lockheed’s team a $715 million “contract modification” to add funding for construction of two Littoral Combat Ships — the third and fourth in a 10-ship contract awarded in December 2010.
Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute, branded the $715 million a “cost overrun.” He assigned equal blame to the Navy for accepting the first ship with deficiencies, and Lockheed for coming back and saying it needed more money.
“Problems continue to be raised, and that’s worrisome. It’s not unreasonable for Congress and taxpayers to ask how their money is being spent,” Preble said.
The LCS is classified as a “brownwater ship,” designed to move swiftly through shallow coastal waters to address piracy and near-shore threats. The ship can reach speeds of up to 40 knots, or 46 mph.
LCS — slightly larger than a frigate — also uniquely deploys “plug and play” modular weapons units for “multi-use” tasks.
Lockheed’s LCS-1 and LCS-3, delivered June 6, are 377-foot steel mono-hull vessels that resemble traditional surface combatants, Techreleased.com reported.
Austal’s LCS-2 and LCS-4, scheduled for an early 2013 delivery, are hulking 400-plus foot long aluminum-hulled trimarans.
Wittman told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau that he was concerned that the strategy of building two difference LCS versions simultaneously may not work out so well.
“Let’s get down to a single variant,” argued Wittman, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Navy, meanwhile, has “exchanged information” with at least 31 foreign militaries regarding the dual-ship project, Rear Adm. James A. Murdoch, LCS program executive officer, told a National Defense Industry Association forum recently.
Overlaying the LCS debate is China’s rapidly growing naval fleet. That country has launched large numbers of new submarines, and Pentagon officials complain that Congress is doing little to counter China’s actions.
Reps. J. Randy Forbes and Frank Wolf, both R-Va., fired back last month, accusing the Obama administration of failing to address China’s military buildup.
The U.S. government has a “frightening reluctance” to highlight the challenges posed by China, Forbes charged.
Wittman, in an interview with Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau, agreed.
“China is moving at a breakneck pace. You don’t get to press the reset button in defense,” he cautioned.
The congressman noted that the United States is scheduled to launch just one submarine in 2014 while retiring seven cruisers before their life terms end.
While reiterating his concerns about the LCS program, Wittman said America’s economy depends on this country’s ability to keep shipping lanes open and to maintain its superpower status on the seas.
The projected buy of 55 LCSs will make up one-third of the U.S. surface combatant fleet.
At a May 21 Cato Institute forum in Washington, D.C., Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work went so far as to suggest that after operational testing, the ship designs might be segregated by ocean.
With high endurance and a larger aviation capacity, “maybe over time, the LCS-2 becomes the Pacific ship,” said Work, with an eye toward China.
“The LCS-1 — small, maneuverable, can get into any port you can think of in Latin America or Africa … a great swarm killer with a steel hull, so if you want to up-gun you can — having these two ships right now, we believe is a tremendous advantage,” Work said.
Still, libertarian-oriented Cato researchers harbor doubts.
“A recent report on the first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1) raised some serious questions about the ship’s range and durability. Others have noted the LCS’s high cost relative to acceptable alternative platforms.
“Given that the LCS is supposed to constitute a third of the surface combatant fleet by the late 2020s, is it time to consider other options?” the Cato analysts mused.
Preble said the dual-buy set-up of producing “two very, very different ships from two different shipyards is likely to lose economies of scale.
“I worry that those losses will be significant in terms of parts, supplies and training,” Preble told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
Preble added that the Navy is “not too far in” to consider producing just one variant of the LCS, and at this point, he gives a slight edge to the Austral version.
“The (Austral) LCS-2 is exceptional for helicopters. Its flight deck is bigger than any other.” On the other hand, he cautioned that the sheer size of the ship could be a drawback in maneuverability.
“Ultimately, we need to decide if we want to be providing coast guard cutters to other countries,” Preble said.